Can the U.S. Counter the Taliban's Advance in Pakistan?
President Obama pointed out last week that while the "typical president" has to handle two or three big problems at once, he has had to juggle "seven or eight." Still, the new administration is managing to generate an impressive amount of energy and activism across that broad field. In foreign affairs, that raises a compelling question: Do the levers of American influence still work?
The question can be asked about the Middle East, Iran and North Korea, where the administration's special envoys and initiatives so far are showing few results. But it is coming to a head in Pakistan, where the Obama team has focused much of its attention and diplomacy the past two weeks.
This first big test has been something of a slow-burner, often neglected by media distracted by pirates and swine flu. Nevertheless, the accelerating power of Islamic extremists in a nuclear-armed state is as big and as scary a threat as any president has faced since the end of the Cold War -- and the administration has responded with an aggressive array of military, political, diplomatic and economic initiatives, in Pakistan, Washington and elsewhere.
The trouble is, it all may not work -- as senior administration officials frankly acknowledge. By year's end, Pakistan could morph into a catastrophe that overshadows those six or seven other big problems. That won't happen because the White House ignored it, but it may be the case that proves that U.S. global influence has receded to a dangerous degree.
The administration began by treating Pakistan as an adjunct to its strategy for Afghanistan, because Pakistan's western tribal territories serve as bases for the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Yet in the past month Pakistan suddenly has seemed to tip toward collapse as the Taliban rapidly expanded toward Islamabad while the country's army and weak civilian government dithered.
This is the sort of trouble U.S. administrations have often ignored until it was too late -- as in neighboring Iran before its Islamic revolution. So it's been notable how quickly how many senior Obama administration officials have concentrated on Pakistan. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has almost camped out in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistani army commander Ashfaq Kiyani, visiting twice in the past month alone. President Asif Ali Zardari has been invited to Washington this week for a trilateral summit with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The administration organized a pledging conference in Tokyo three weeks ago that raised $5.5 billion in new civilian aid for the government. It is meanwhile talking to Congress about quickly approving $400 million in training money for Pakistani security forces fighting the Taliban, in addition to the billions in military and economic aid in future budgets. The National Security Council met last week to hear a new report by the U.S. intelligence community, which concluded that an Islamic revolution in Pakistan was not likely "in the near future." An intensive review has also begun of how Pakistan's nuclear weapons are secured and what might happen to them in an emergency.
Much of the focus flows from the administration's special envoy system at the State Department, which has served to bypass a sometimes sluggish bureaucracy. Richard Holbrooke, the czar for Afghanistan and Pakistan and a diplomat of legendary aggressiveness, has been showering Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the White House with memos on Pakistan, shuttling back and forth to the region, and bulking up his staff with outside experts.
All this activity has produced some tentative results. Under heavy American pressure, Zardari backed down from a potentially disastrous street confrontation with rival Nawaz Sharif; the administration is now trying to push Pakistan's two biggest civilian parties into an alliance. Days after Mullen's last visit, the Pakistani army finally launched an offensive last week against Taliban forces that had infiltrated the Buner district, some 60 miles from the capital.
The administration is discovering, however, that its power to influence events in Pakistan is quite limited. Other than remote-controlled missile strikes, the United States has no direct means of stopping Islamic extremists from taking over the country. Despite its new offensive, Pakistan's army still resists U.S. urgings that it shift some of the 250,000 troops it has deployed along the border with India to the western territories where the Taliban is entrenched. Much of the civilian elite remains focused on intramural political squabbles and -- like Iran's secular middle class in the 1970s -- discounts the fundamentalist menace.
"We have a list of things we can do, but at the end of the day they are inputs," one senior official said. "None of them can determine the internal dynamics of the country."
In other words, energy and focus won't necessarily spare Obama from a foreign policy disaster. "It's not good when your national security interests are dependent on a country over which you have almost no influence," said that senior official. Yet those are the cards this atypical president has drawn.